Simon is a biologist and presenter of The Elephant: Life After Death
Why did you want to get involved in the programme?
A big part of it was due to the sheer scale of it. It's unprecedented to have looked at something like this at the level of detail that we have. It's remarkable to have been able to film 24/7 and capture everything. With that level of accuracy and knowledge, who wouldn't want to be involved?
It seems a perfect way to demonstrate that death isn't the end of the life cycle in an environment like this.
Precisely - something the size of an elephant carcass is a buffet for every creature in the area. It's a huge opportunity for species which have their lifestyle and life cycles based entirely around carcasses like this. Everything plays a role in the process.
Some of the scenes aren't for the faint-hearted...
No, and you get the toned down version. The smell of the carcass was the worst. It clung to you and all your clothes. You had to wash them several times if you'd been near it.
Were you squeamish about watching it unfold?
Not at all actually, that's never really bothered me. If you're squeamish about that kind of thing, you'll have trouble filming anything in Africa. You're more likely to get squeamish thinking about the various things living in your tent when you're there. You get to the point where you're happy to see a certain type of insect just because you know it will eat the mosquitoes! You have some every odd bedfellows.
How difficult were the logistics of making the programme?
Just finding a location where we knew we could get the full spectrum of life was difficult. Many of Africa's ecosystems have been so decimated by human interactions, overgrazing and poaching that you don't see a natural ecosystem anymore. You don't get the variety of life.
The logistics of the shoot were extraordinary. Every day we joked that our risk assessments kept getting longer and longer. They included everything from different standards on electrical safety to buffalo in the area and hippos that weren't happy with us being there.
There was even a leopard which had a particular fondness for our cabling. Everyday we'd go out and see footprints where it had come into the camp at night to see what we were doing, because we were on its patch.
For a biologist it must have made for an amazing day in the office...
It was fantastic. Obviously it was hard work because you were on call; anything could happen at any minute. We all took shifts at the cameras and at the lookouts. One of the things I really enjoyed was that because we were actually in the bush doing it, you really got a feel for it. When you heard bush babies cry or the hyenas, even if you couldn't see them you knew they were there. There were a lot of experiences like that. It was great to get a practical knowledge of that habitat and ecosystem.
Did you worry that something big might happen while you weren't on a shift at the monitors?
The first night, several of us were burning the midnight oil somewhat needlessly... we had the monitors covered, we had rotas set up to make sure we captured everything, and if something did happen we planned to run into the tent next door to wake everyone up.
We'd invested so much time, work and emotion into it, so there were a lot of people on the first night that should've been sleeping who weren't. We just watched for many hours while nothing happened because we had that sense that something could at any moment.
What part of the shoot were you most excited by?
What I was most chuffed about was the things that we didn't expect. Seeing a team of hyenas working together was fascinating because you forget how barbaric they are. They look thuggish and act like gangsters, really taking ownership of a carcass.
But what you don't imagine is the level of interaction that went on at the site. You could clearly see who the queen female hyena was, the one in charge. They would want to claim this prize as theirs, but every so often a jackal on the sidelines would prick up its ears and look off into the distance. Then, for reasons you couldn't fathom, they'd all dart off.
Five minutes later a leopard would appear and you'd think 'Ahh, that's why'. That level of social interaction was unexpected and it was that secondary stuff that was the most fascinating.
The hyenas didn't seem particularly bothered by what part of the elephant they ate...
It depends on your social status. The dominant female probably gets the prize cuts. You could see this social hierarchy form in a concentric circle around the carcass. The king and queens and the hard hyenas - there was a similar thing amongst the vultures - get prime positions in the front. The scraps around the edges are for the more cautious and scared animals, like jackals, which just have to take what they can get and make off with it.
So there is a real hierarchy: not just on social status but also geographic, affecting where they can feed on the carcass.
But this is the order you need; you need the hyenas because the jackals do not have the apparatus and tools to get in at the soft belly. They need the hyenas to get in there first and rip it open. Otherwise, it is just a big, wrapped meal they can't get at.
The whole process is place amazingly fast - in just seven days the carcass was reduced to bones.
It is fast, especially when you consider how big that animal is. It makes you realise that most of the donkey work is done by the smallest things - maggots. It really surprised me; I'd never been near that quantity of maggots before. You could hear them 10 metres from the carcass. You'd hear a rustling like leaves or a crisp packet and that was the sound of a million mouths munching. It was astounding. The order of them was fascinating; they were almost regimented in the way they were lined up. You imagine it to be bedlam and chaos, but each maggot had its own little patch.
How different would the process have been if the carcass had been something other than an elephant?
I think it would vary according to habitat rather than actual animal. The carcass of something as large as an elephant is so much of a feast that it can't be eaten quickly. It starts to rot and becomes almost toxic, poisoning the soil underneath for a while. That wouldn't happen with a smaller animal.
The thing I'd be interested to see if we could do this again would be to see how a carcass in South America is recycled. Scavengers get a rough deal but they are so fundamental to this process and in the spreading of nutrients in secondary and tertiary food chains. They dissipate a massive amount of energy. Each habitat is bound to have its own way in which that process unfolds, so doing this again in the rainforest would make an interesting comparison.
How fussy are the animals feeding on the carcass about the putrid state of the meat?
Desperation is huge factor. We think that's the reason why we didn't get lions at the site. The ones nearby had killed and were eating the fresh meat they had caught. There was no reason for them to come to our stinking carcass.
To that end, the number of pregnant female jackals and hyenas we observed really let you appreciate that they had so much more invested in the carcass. It was a consistent place to gorge themselves for a day or two.
Different bits of the carcass had different longevity. We were there for seven days, but the bones are going to be munched upon by those hyenas for a long time. They have a very bone-rich diet. You can spot hyena poo a mile off because it's all white from the high bone content.
Even the elephant's skin, with the thickness of it, is like biltong for a jackal. It's a way of making the meal last that little bit longer.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching the programme?
Not to be dismissive of certain animals. One of the things I always find funny is that we tend to care about butterflies but forget about moths. A similar outlook applies to all these creatures.
Vultures, for example, have such a bad reputation. We forget that they are tremendous parents and actually quite clean. After they've had their feast and covered themselves in blood, they do go off and have a wash. They have a level of social interaction; they are clever birds and know what is going on. All these positive and amazing attributes get lost when you think of them shoving their heads inside a carcass trying to rip things out. But they have an important part to play.